Great Bear, Milky Way, Great Beaver & Ferz Bretwit in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sat, 07/14/2018 - 09:29

In Canto One of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) mentions the Great Bear and the Milky Way:


That's Dr. Sutton's light. That's the Great Bear.
A thousand years ago five minutes were
Equal to forty ounces of fine sand.
Outstare the stars. Infinite foretime and
Infinite aftertime: above your head
They close like giant wings, and you are dead.

The regular vulgarian, I daresay,
Is happier: He sees the Milky Way
Only when making water. (ll. 119-127)


Bol’shaya medveditsa (Kovsh) (“The Great Bear (Dipper),” 1906) is a story by Leo Tolstoy (who translated this legend from the English magazine Herald of Peace):


Была давно-давно на земле большая засуха: пересохли все реки, ручьи, колодцы, и засохли деревья, кусты и травы, и умирали от жажды люди и животные.

Раз ночью вышла девочка из дома с ковшиком поискать воды для больной матери. Нигде не нашла девочка воды и с усталости легла в поле на траву и заснула. Когда она проснулась и взялась за ковшик, она чуть не пролила из него воду. Он был полон чистой, свежей воды. Девочка обрадовалась и хотела было напиться, но потом подумала, что недостанет матери и побежала с ковшиком домой. Она так спешила, что не заметила под ногами собачки, споткнулась на неё и уронила ковшик. Собачка жалобно визжала. Девочка хватилась ковшика.

Она думала, что разлила его, но нет, он стоял прямо на своём дне, и вся вода была цела в нём. Девочка отлила в ладонь воды, и собачка всё вылакала и повеселела. Тогда девочка взялась опять за ковшик, он из деревянного стал серебряным. Девочка принесла ковшик домой и подала матери. Мать сказала: "Мне всё равно умирать, пей лучше сама", и отдала ковшик девочке. И в ту же минуту ковшик из серебряного стал золотой. Тогда девочка не могла уже больше удерживаться и только хотела приложиться к ковшику, как вдруг в дверь вошёл странник и попросил напиться. Девочка проглотила слюни и поднесла страннику ковшик. И вдруг на ковшике выскочило семь огромных брильянтов, и из него полилась большая струя чистой, свежей воды.

А семь брильянтов стали подниматься выше и выше и поднялись на небо и стали Большой Медведицей.


A long, long time ago there was a big drought on the earth. All the rivers dried up and the streams and wells, and the trees withered and the bushes and grass, and men and beasts died of thirst.

One night a little girl went out with a pitcher to find some water for her sick mother. She wandered and wandered everywhere, but could find no water, and she grew so tired that she lay down on the grass and fell asleep. When she awoke and took up the pitcher she nearly upset the water it contained. The pitcher was full of clear, fresh water. The little girl was glad and was about to put it to her lips, but she remembered her mother and ran home with the pitcher as fast as she could. She hurried so much that she did not notice a little dog in her path ; she stumbled over it and dropped the pitcher. The dog whined pitifully ; the little girl seized the pitcher.

She thought the water would have been upset, but the pitcher stood upright and the water was there as before. She poured a little into the palm of her hand and the dog lapped it and was comforted. When the little girl again took up the pitcher, it had turned from common wood to silver. She took the pitcher home and gave it to her mother.

The mother said, " I shall die just the same ; you had better drink it,' : and she handed the pitcher to the child. In that moment the pitcher turned from silver to gold. The little girl could no longer contain herself and was about to put the pitcher to her lips, when the door opened and a stranger entered who begged for a drink. The little girl swallowed her saliva and gave the pitcher to him. And suddenly seven large diamonds sprang out of the pitcher and a stream of clear, fresh water flowed from it. And the seven diamonds began to rise, and they rose higher and higher till they reached the sky and became the Great Bear.

(Transl. R. S. Townsend)


VN’s poem Bol’shaya medveditsa (“The Great Bear”), written in 1918 in Yalta, ends in the line i ukazali put’ k zemle (“and showed the way to the land”):


Был грозен волн полночный рёв...
Семь девушек на взморье ждали
невозвратившихся челнов
и, руки заломив, рыдали.

Семь звёздочек в суровой мгле
над рыбаками чётко встали
и указали путь к земле...


Shade’s mad Commentator, Kinbote imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla.


At the end of his novel Anna Karenin (1875-77) Leo Tolstoy mentions Mlechnyi put’ (the Milky Way):


Уже совсем стемнело, и на юге, куда он смотрел, не было туч. Тучи стояли с противной стороны. Оттуда вспыхивала молния и слышался дальний гром. Левин прислушивался к равномерно падающим с лип в саду каплям и смотрел на знакомый ему треугольник звёзд и на проходящий в середине его Млечный Путь с его разветвлением. При каждой вспышке молнии не только Млечный Путь, но и яркие звёзды исчезали, но, как только потухала молния, опять, как будто брошенные какой-то меткой рукой, появлялись на тех же местах.


It was quite dark now, and in the south, where he was looking, there were no clouds. The storm had drifted on to the opposite side of the sky, and there were flashes of lightning and distant thunder from that quarter. Levin listened to the monotonous drip from the lime trees in the garden, and looked at the triangle of stars he knew so well, and the Milky Way with its branches that ran through its midst. At each flash of lightning the Milky Way, and even the bright stars, vanished, but as soon as the lightning died away, they reappeared in their places as though some hand had flung them back with careful aim. (Part Eight, chapter XIX)


In the English version of VN’s story Vesna v Fial’te (“Spring in Fialta,” 1936) the narrator learns of Nina’s death from a newspaper that he bought in Mlech:


But the stone was as warm as flesh, and suddenly I understood something I had been seeing without understanding—why a piece of tinfoil had sparkled so on the pavement, why the gleam of a glass had trembled on a tablecloth, why the sea was ashimmer: somehow, by imperceptible degrees, the white sky above Fialta had got saturated with sunshine, and now it was sun-pervaded throughout, and this brimming white radiance grew broader and broader, all dissolved in it, all vanished, all passed, and I stood on the station platform of Mlech with a freshly bought newspaper, which told me that the yellow car I had seen under the plane trees had suffered a crash beyond Fialta, having run at full speed into the truck of a traveling circus entering the town, a crash from which Ferdinand and his friend, those invulnerable rogues, those salamanders of fate, those basilisks of good fortune, had escaped with local and temporary injury to their scales, while Nina, in spite of her long-standing, faithful imitation of them, had turned out after all to be mortal.


Mlech rhymes with mech (sword), the last word in VN’s poem Gerb (“The Blazon,” 1925):


Лишь отошла земля родная,

в солёной тьме дохнул норд-ост,

как меч алмазный, обнажая

средь облаков стремнину звёзд.


Мою тоску, воспоминанья

клянусь я царственно беречь

с тех пор, как принял герб изгнанья:

на чёрном поле звёздный меч.


As soon as my native land had receded

in the briny dark the northeaster struck,

like a sword of diamond revealing

among the clouds a chasm of stars.


My yearning ache, my recollections

I swear to preserve with royal care

ever since I adopted the blazon of exile:

on a field of sable a starry sword.


In VN’s play Izobretenie Val’sa (“The Waltz Invention,” 1938) the name of one of the eleven generals is Gerb. The action in “The Waltz Invention” seems to take place in a dream that Lyubov’, Troshcheykin’s wife in VN’s play Sobytie (“The Event,” 1938), dreams in the “sleep of death” after stabbing herself on her dead son’s fifth birthday (two days after her mother’s fiftieth birthday). The name and patronymic of Lyubov’s mother (a lady writer), Antonina Pavlovna, hints at A. P. Chekhov. Antonina Pavlovna’s surname, Opayashina, brings to mind Natasha’s green poyas (belt) in Chekhov’s play “The Three Sisters” (1901). At the end of his poem Tvoyo litso bledney, chem bylo… (“Your face is paler than it was…” 1906) Alexander Blok compares his mistress’ silver belt to mlechnyi put’ (the Milky Way):


Не медли, в тёмных тенях кроясь,

Не бойся вспомнить и взглянуть.

Серебряный твой узкий пояс —

Суждённый магу млечный путь.


Don’t hesitate, hiding in dark shadows,

don’t be afraid to remember and look back.

Your silver narrow belt

is the Milky Way destined for a magician.


In his Foreword to Vozmezdie (“Retribution,” 1910-21) Blok mentions those infinitely high qualities, such as humanism, virtues, impeccable honesty, etc., that once shone like luchshie almazy v chelovecheskoy korone (the best diamonds in man’s crown):


Тема заключается в том, как развиваются звенья единой цепи рода. Отдельные отпрыски всякого рода развиваются до положенного им предела и затем вновь поглощаются окружающей мировой средой; но в каждом отпрыске зреет и отлагается нечто новое и нечто более острое, ценою бесконечных потерь, личных трагедий, жизненных неудач, падений и т. д.; ценою, наконец, потери тех бесконечно высоких свойств, которые в своё время сияли, как лучшие алмазы в человеческой короне (как, например, свойства гуманные, добродетели, безупречная честность, высокая нравственность и проч.).

At the end of Chekhov’s play Dyadya Vanya (“Uncle Vanya,” 1898) Sonya promises to uncle Vanya that they will see the whole sky swarming with diamonds. In Chekhov’s story Dama s sobachkoy (“The Lady with the Lapdog,” 1899) Gurov, as he speaks to his daughter, a schoolgirl, uses the phrase tri gradusa (three degrees):


— Теперь три градуса тепла, а между тем идет снег, — говорил Гуров дочери. — Но ведь это тепло только на поверхности земли, в верхних же слоях атмосферы совсем другая температура.

“It’s three degrees above freezing-point, and yet it is snowing,” said Gurov to his daughter. “The thaw is only on the surface of the earth; there is quite a different temperature at a greater height in the atmosphere.” (chapter IV)


The action in "The Lady with the Lapdog" begins in Yalta (a town in the Crimea where Chekhov lived at the time). In “The Spring in Fialta” the narrator says that can hear the name Yalta echoed by Fialta’s viola:


I am fond of Fialta; I am fond of it because I feel in the hollow of those violaceous syllables the sweet dark dampness of the most rumpled of small flowers, and because the altolike name of a lovely Crimean town is echoed by its viola; and also because there is something in the very somnolence of its humid Lent that especially anoints one’s soul.


When Kinbote visits Queen Disa at her Mediterranean villa, Disa asks her husband about the crown jewels and Kinbote asks Fleur de Fyler if she still plays the viola:


No such qualms disturbed him as he sat now on the terrace of her villa and recounted his lucky escape from the Palace. She enjoyed his description of the underground link with the theater and tried to visualize the jolly scramble across the mountains; but the part concerning Garh displeased her as if, paradoxically, she would have preferred him to have gone through a bit of wholesome houghmagandy with the wench. She told him sharply to skip such interludes, and he made her a droll little bow. But when he began to discuss the political situation (two Soviet generals had just been attached to the Extremist government as Foreign Advisers), a familiar vacant expression appeared in her eyes. Now that he was safely out of the country, the entire blue bulk of Zembla, from Embla Point to Emblem Bay, could sink in the sea for all she cared. That he had lost weight was of more concern to her than that he had lost a kingdom. Perfunctorily she inquired about the crown jewels; he revealed to her their unusual hiding place, and she melted in girlish mirth as she had not done for years and years. "I do have some business matters to discuss," he said. "And there are papers you have to sign." Up in the trellis a telephone climbed with the roses. One of her former ladies in waiting, the languid and elegant Fleur de Fyler (now fortyish and faded), still wearing pearls in her raven hair and the traditional white mantilla, brought certain documents from Disa's boudoir. Upon hearing the King's mellow voice behind the laurels, Fleur recognized it before she could be misled by his excellent disguise. Two footmen, handsome young strangers of a marked Latin type, appeared with the tea and caught Fleur in mid-curtsey. A sudden breeze groped among the glycines. Defiler of flowers. He asked Fleur as she turned to go with the Disa orchids if she still played the viola. She shook her head several times not wishing to speak without addressing him and not daring to do so while the servants might be within earshot. (note to Lines 433-434)


Viola is Sebastian’s twin sister in Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night, or What You Will. VN’s first novel written in English was The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941). The name of Sebastian Knight’s mistress, Nina Rechnoy, hints at Nina Zarechnyi, a character in Chekhov’s play Chayka (“The Seagull,” 1896).


Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Mone, Queen Disa seems to blend Leonardo’s Mona Lisa with Desdemona, Othello’s wife in Shakespeare’s Othello. Kinbote compares Gerald Emerald (a young instructor at Wordsmith University) to a disciple in Leonardo's Last Supper:


In the meantime, at the other end of the room, young Emerald had been communing with the bookshelves. At this point he returned with the the T-Z volume of an illustrated encyclopedia.

"Well," said he, "here he is, that king. But look, he is young and handsome" ("Oh, that won't do," wailed the German visitor.) "Young, handsome, and wearing a fancy uniform," continued Emerald. "Quite the fancy pansy, in fact."

"And you," I said quietly, "are a foul-minded pup in a cheap green jacket."

"But what have I said?" the young instructor inquired of the company, spreading out his palms like a disciple in Leonardo's Last Supper. (note to Line 894)


At the beginning of “The Event” the portrait painter Troshcheykin marvels his almost finished portrait of the jeweler’s son and mentions Othello:


Трощейкин. Видишь ли, они должны гореть, бросать на него отблеск, но сперва я хочу закрепить отблеск, а потом приняться за его источники. Надо помнить, что искусство движется всегда против солнца. Ноги, видишь, уже совсем перламутровые. Нет, мальчик мне нравится! Волосы хороши: чуть-чуть с чёрной курчавинкой. Есть какая-то связь между драгоценными камнями и негритянской кровью. Шекспир это почувствовал в своём "Отелло". Ну, так. (Смотрит на другой портрет.) А мадам Вагабундова чрезвычайно довольна, что пишу её в белом платье на испанском фоне, и не понимает, какой это страшный кружевной гротеск... Все-таки, знаешь, я тебя очень прошу, Люба, раздобыть мои мячи, я не хочу, чтобы они были в бегах. (Act One)


According to Troshcheykin, there is some connection between precious stones and the Negro blood that Shakespeare has perceived in his Othello. At Antonina Pavlovna’s birthday party one of the guests, the famous writer, “quotes” Shakespeare (“zad iz zyk veshchan”):


Куприков. Из этого я заключил, что он замышляет недоброе дело, а потому обращаюсь снова к вам, Любовь Ивановна, и к тебе, дорогой Алёша, при свидетелях, с убедительной просьбой принять максимальные предосторожности.

Трощейкин. Да! Но какие, какие?

Писатель. "Зад, -- как сказал бы Шекспир, -- зад из зык вещан". (Репортёру.) А что вы имеете сказать, солнце моё? (Act Two)


The name and patronymic of the famous writer, Pyotr Nikolaevich, hints at Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy (the composer and writer paired by Chekhov in a letter to of a letter of March 16, 1890, to Modest Tchaikovsky). At the beginning of the same letter to the composer’s brother Chekhov asks the permission to strike out the thirteenth lastochka (swallow) on the notepaper:


Позвольте зачеркнуть тринадцатую ласточку, дорогой Модест Ильич: несчастливое число.

VN’s collection Nabokov’s Dozen (1958), in which “The Spring in Fialta” appeared, includes thirteen stories. The maiden name of Sofia Botkin (the “real” name of Sybil Shade, the poet’s wife, and Queen Disa) was Sofia Lastochkin. The “real” name of Hazel Shade (the poet’s poor daughter) seems to be Nadezhda Botkin. At her birthday party Antonina Pavlovna tells Eleonora Shnap (Lyubov’s former midwife) that she has two daughters, Lyubov’ and Vera, but, alas, no Nadezhda:


Элеонора Шнап. К сожаленью, об этом уже говорит вес, вес город.

Антонина Павловна. Именно, к сожалению! Очень хорошо. Я сама понимаю, что этим нечего гордиться: только ближе к могиле. Это моя дочь Вера. Любовь, вы, конечно, знаете, моего зятя тоже, а Надежды у меня нет.

Элеонора Шнап. Божмой! Неужели безнадежно?

Антонина Павловна. Да, ужасно безнадежная семья. (Смеётся.) А до чего мне хотелось иметь маленькую Надю с зелёными глазками. (Act Two)


Vera (Faith), Nadezhda (Hope), and Lyubov’ (Love) are the daughters of Sophia (Wisdom). Eleonora Shnap misunderstands Antonina Pavlovna’s words and asks her if the situation is beznadezhna (hopeless). Eleonora Shnap’s exclamation Bozhmoy brings to mind Bozhe moy (“my God”), a Russian ejaculation used by Gradus (Shade’s murderer) at a moment of stress:


Gradus returned to the Main Desk.

"Too bad," said the girl, "I just saw him leave."

"Bozhe moy, Bozhe moy," muttered Gradus, who sometimes at moments of stress used Russian ejaculations.

"You'll find him in the directory," she said pushing it towards him, and dismissing the sick man's existence to attend to the wants of Mr. Gerald Emerald who was taking out a fat bestseller in a cellophane jacket.

Moaning and shifting from one foot to the other, Gradus started leafing through the college directory but when he found the address, he was faced with the problem of getting there.

"Dulwich Road," he cried to the girl. "Near? Far? Very far, probably?"

"Are you by any chance Professor Pnin's new assistant?" asked Emerald.

"No," said the girl. "This man is looking for Dr. Kinbote, I think. You are looking for Dr. Kinbote, aren't you?"

"Yes, and I can't any more," said Gradus.

"I thought so," said the girl. "Doesn't he live somewhere near Mr. Shade, Gerry?"

"Oh, definitely," said Gerry, and turned to the killer: "I can drive you there if you like. It is on my way."

Did they talk in the car, these two characters, the man in green and the man in brown? Who can say? They did not. After all, the drive took only a few minutes (it took me, at the wheel of my powerful Kramler, four and a half).

"I think I'll drop you here," said Mr. Emerald. "It's that house up there."

One finds it hard to decide what Gradus alias Grey wanted more at that minute: discharge his gun or rid himself of the inexhaustible lava in his bowels. As he began hurriedly fumbling at the car door, unfastidious Emerald leaned, close to him, across him almost merging with him, to help him open it--and then, slamming it shut again, whizzed on to some tryst in the valley. My reader will, I hope, appreciate all the minute particulars I have taken such trouble to present to him after a long talk I had with the killer; he will appreciate them even more if I tell him that, according to the legend spread later by the police, Jack Grey had been given a lift, all the way from Roanoke, or somewhere, by a lonesome trucker! One can only hope that an impartial search will turn up the trilby forgotten in the Library--or in Mr. Emerald's car. (note to Line 949)


According to Kinbote, he once overheard Gerald Emerald calling him “the great beaver:”


One day I happened to enter the English Literature office in quest of a magazine with the picture of the Royal Palace in Onhava, which I wanted my friend to see, when I overheard a young instructor in a green velvet jacket, whom I shall mercifully call Gerald Emerald, carelessly saying in answer to something the secretary had asked: "I guess My Shade has already left with the great beaver." Of course, I am quite tall, and my brown beard is of a rather rich tint and texture; the silly cognomen evidently applied to me, but was not worth noticing, and after calmly taking the magazine from a pamphlet-cluttered table, I contented myself on my way out with pulling Gerald Emerald's bow-tie loose with a deft jerk of my fingers as I passed by him. (Foreword)


bear + Vera + Geld + Esmeralda + drug = beaver + Gerald Emerald + Gradus


Geld – Germ., money

Esmeralda – the gypsy girl in Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris (1831); Chloroselas esmeralda, a butterfly in the Lycaenidae family; VN’s poem Lines Written in Oregon (1953) ends in the line: “Esmeralda, immer, immer!Immer is German for “always;” in Ilf and Petrov’s novel Dvenadtsat’ stuliev (“The Twelve Chairs,” 1928) Polesov’s political credo is vsegda (always); with Polesov’s help Ostap Bender organizes in Stargorod Soyuz mecha i orala (“The Union of Sword and Plaugh”); the characters in “The Twelve Chairs” include Mme Petukhov (Vorobyaninov’s mother-in-law); after his wife had left him with a gypsy lover, Gradus lived in sin with his mother-in-law:


At his hotel the beaming proprietress handed him a telegram. It chided him in Danish for leaving Geneva and told him to undertake nothing until further notice. It also advised him to forget his work and amuse himself. But what (save dreams of blood) could be his amusements? He was not interested in sightseeing or seasiding. He had long stopped drinking. He did not go to concerts. He did not gamble. Sexual impulses had greatly bothered him at one time but that was over. After his wife, a beader in Radugovitra, had left him (with a gypsy lover), he had lived in sin with his mother-in-law until she was removed, blind and dropsical, to an asylum for decayed widows. Since then he had tried several times to castrate himself, had been laid up at the Glassman Hospital with a severe infection, and now, at forty-four, was quite cured of the lust that Nature, the grand cheat, puts into us to inveigle us into propagation. No wonder the advice to amuse himself infuriated him. I think I shall break this note here. (note to Line 697)


Among the humorists whom Shade mentioned in a conversation with Kinbote are “those joint authors of genius Ilf and Petrov:”


Speaking of the Head of the bloated Russian Department, Prof. Pnin, a regular martinet in regard to his underlings (happily, Prof. Botkin, who taught in another department, was not subordinated to that grotesque "perfectionist"): "How odd that Russian intellectuals should lack all sense of humor when they have such marvelous humorists as Gogol, Dostoevski, Chekhov, Zoshchenko, and those joint authors of genius Ilf and Petrov." (note to Line 172)


drug – Russ., friend; in the Russian Lolita (1967) Gumbert Gumbert calls his pistol (“chum” in the original) druzhok (a diminutive of drug); according to Humbert Humbert, “a pistol is the Freudian symbol of the Urfather’s central forelimb” (2.17); on Antiterra (aka Demonia, Earth’s twin planet on which VN’s novel Ada is set) Sigmund Freud is known as Dr Froit of Signy-Mondieu-Mondieu in the Ardennes (1.3); in E. A. Poe’s story The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether (1845) a dozen of voices cry Mon dieu (“my God”) when Mlle Salsafette begins to undress:


"Oh, Madame Joyeuse was a fool!" she exclaimed, "but there was really much sound sense, after all, in the opinion of Eugenie Salsafette. She was a very beautiful and painfully modest young lady, who thought the ordinary mode of habiliment indecent, and wished to dress herself, always, by getting outside instead of inside of her clothes. It is a thing very easily done, after all. You have only to do so -- and then so -- so -- so -- and then so -- so -- so -- and then so -- so -- and then-
"Mon dieu! Ma'm'selle Salsafette!" here cried a dozen voices at once. "What are you about? -- forbear! -- that is sufficient! -- we see, very plainly, how it is done! -- hold! hold!" and several persons were already leaping from their seats to withhold Ma'm'selle Salsafette from putting herself upon a par with the Medicean Venus, when the point was very effectually and suddenly accomplished by a series of loud screams, or yells, from some portion of the main body of the chateau.


In the Völsunga saga Signy, the daughter of the king Völsung, has an incestuous affair with her brother Sigmund. In Ada (1969) Van Veen (the narrator and main character) and Ada Veen are brother and sister and happy lovers. According to Van, Ada is a poor chess player:


Van, a first-rate chess player — he was to win in 1887 a match at Chose when he beat the Minsk-born Pat Rishin (champion of Underhill and Wilson, N.C.) — had been puzzled by Ada’s inability of raising the standard of her, so to speak, damsel-errant game above that of a young lady in an old novel or in one of those anti-dandruff color-photo ads that show a beautiful model (made for other games than chess) staring at the shoulder of her otherwise impeccably groomed antagonist across a preposterous traffic jam of white and scarlet, elaborately and unrecognizably carved, Lalla Rookh chessmen, which not even cretins would want to play with — even if royally paid for the degradation of the simplest thought under the itchiest scalp.

Ada did manage, now and then, to conjure up a combinational sacrifice, offering, say, her queen — with a subtle win after two or three moves if the piece were taken; but she saw only one side of the question, preferring to ignore, in the queer lassitude of clogged cogitation, the obvious counter combination that would lead inevitably to her defeat if the grand sacrifice were not accepted. On the Scrabble board, however, this same wild and weak Ada was transformed into a sort of graceful computing machine, endowed, moreover, with phenomenal luck, and would greatly surpass baffled Van in acumen, foresight and exploitation of chance, when shaping appetizing long words from the most unpromising scraps and collops. (1.36)


In VN’s novel Zashchita Luzhina (“The Luzhin Defense,” 1930) the main character is a chess wunderkind who becomes a grandmaster but then goes mad and commits suicide. In TRLSK Sebastian Knight dies in a sanatorium in St. Damier. Damier is French for “chess board.” In “The Twelve Chairs” Ostap Bender plays simultaneous chess in Vasyuki (“The Interplanetary Chess Tournament”). The first part of Ilf and Petrov’s novel is entitled Stargorodskiy lev (“The Lion of Stargorod”). In “The Event” the famous writer is star (old) and l’vist (lion-like). Troshcheykin asks his mother-in-law why she invited the famous writer to her birthday party and compares him to ferz’ (chess queen) and all other guests to peshki (pawns):


Трощейкин. А вот почему вы, Антонина Павловна, пригласили нашего маститого? Всё ломаю себе голову над этим вопросом. На что он вам? И потом, нельзя так: один ферзь, а все остальные -- пешки. (Act One)


In his Commentary Kinbote mentions Ferz Bretwit, Mayor of Aros:


The scripta in question were two hundred and thirteen long letters which had passed some seventy years ago between Zule Bretwit, Oswin’s grand-uncle, Mayor of Odevalla, and a cousin of his Ferz Bretwit, Mayor of Aros. This correspondence, a dismal exchange of bureaucratic platitudes and fustian jokes, was devoid of even such parochial interest as letters of this sort may possess in the eyes of a local historian--but of course there is no way of telling what will repel or attract a sentimental ancestralist--and this was what Oswin Bretwit had always been known to be by his former staff. I would like to take time out here to interrupt this dry commentary and pay a brief tribute to Oswin Bretwit. (note to Line 286)


According to Kinbote, the name Bretwit means in Zemblan “Chess Intelligence.” In Drugie berega (“Other Shores,” 1954), the Russian version of his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951), VN describes his best chess problem and mentions a photograph depicting Leo Tolstoy and A. B. Goldenweiser over a chessboard:


За такой же доской, как раз уместившейся на низком столике, сидели Лев Толстой и А. Б. Гольденвейзер 6-го ноября 1904-го года по старому стилю (рисунок Морозова, ныне в Толстовском Музее в Москве), и рядом с ними, на круглом столе под лампой, виден не только открытый ящик для фигур, но и бумажный ярлычок (с подписью Staunton), приклеенный к внутренней стороне крышки. (Chapter Thirteen, 4)


Alexander Goldenweiser (1875-1961) was a Russian pianist, teacher and composer. Tolstoy is the author of Zhivoy trup ("The Live Corpse," 1900), a play whose title goes back to a line in Pushkin’s poem Podrazhanie ital'yanskomu (“An Imitation of the Italian,” 1836). On the next morning after Gradus’s visit Oswin Bretwit was hospitalized, operated upon and, as Kinbote puts it, “died under the knife.” In Pushkin's little tragedy “Mozart and Salieri” (1830) Salieri says that he dissected music like a corpse and proved harmony by algebra. In Lolita Humbert Humbert is afraid that Charlotte will send her daughter to St. Algebra. In Pushkin’s drama Mozart uses the phrase nikto b (none would):


Когда бы все так чувствовали силу
Гармонии! Но нет: тогда б не мог
И мир существовать; никто б не стал
Заботиться о нуждах низкой жизни;
Все предались бы вольному искусству.


If only all so quickly felt the power
of harmony! But no, in that event
the world could not exist;
none would care
about the needs of ordinary life,
all would give themselves to free art.
(scene II)


Nikto b is Botkin (Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name) in reverse. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda. There is a hope that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum), Botkin, like Count Voromtsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be "full" again. In Speak, Memory VN says that he left Russia on a Greek ship Nadezhda and mentions a game of chess that he played with his father:


In March of 1919, the Reds broke through in northern Crimea, and from various ports a tumultuous evacuation of anti-Bolshevik groups began. Over a glassy sea in the bay of Sebastopol, under wild machine-gun fire from the shore (the Bolshevik troops had just taken the port), my family and I set out for Constantinople and Piraeus on a small and shoddy Greek ship Nadezhda (Hope) carrying a cargo of dried fruit. I remember trying to concentrate, as we were zigzagging out of the bay, on a game of chess with my father—one of the knights had lost its head, and a poker chip replaced a missing rook—and the sense of leaving Russia was totally eclipsed by the agonizing thought that Reds or no Reds, letters from Tamara would be still coming, miraculously and needlessly, to southern Crimea, and would search there for a fugitive addressee, and weakly flap about like bewildered butterflies set loose in an alien zone, at the wrong altitude, among an unfamiliar flora. (Chapter Twelve, 5)


According to Kinbote, John Shade and Sybil Swallow were married in 1919:


John Shade and Sybil Swallow (see note to line 247) were married in 1919, exactly three decades before King Charles wed Disa, Duchess of Payn. (note to Line 275)


Sofia Botkin (Sybil's real name) is a namesake of Sofia, Famusov’s daughter in Griboedov’s comedy in verse Gore ot uma (“Woe from Wit,” 1824). In a letter of the first half of Jan. - Feb. 14, 1825, to Katenin Griboedov responds to Katenin’s criticism and calls Sofia ferz’ (the queen):


Кто-то со злости выдумал об нём, что он сумасшедший, никто не поверил и все повторяют, голос общего недоброхотства и до него доходит, притом и нелюбовь к нему той девушки, для которой единственно он явился в Москву, ему совершенно объясняется, он ей и всем наплевал в глаза и был таков. Ферзь тоже разочарована насчёт своего сахара медовича.


According to Marina (in Ada, Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother), she played Sophie in Stanislavski’s stage version of Griboedov’s play:


A propos de coins: in Griboedov’s Gore ot uma, "How stupid to be so clever," a play in verse, written, I think, in Pushkin’s time, the hero reminds Sophie of their childhood games, and says:


How oft we sat together in a corner

And what harm might there be in that?


but in Russian it is a little ambiguous, have another spot, Van?’ (he shook his head, simultaneously lifting his hand, like his father), ‘because, you see, — no, there is none left anyway — the second line, i kazhetsya chto v etom, can be also construed as "And in that one, meseems," pointing with his finger at a corner of the room. Imagine — when I was rehearsing that scene with Kachalov at the Seagull Theater, in Yukonsk, Stanislavski, Konstantin Sergeevich, actually wanted him to make that cosy little gesture (uyutnen’kiy zhest).’” (1.37)


A professional diplomat and amateur musician (the author of two waltzes), Griboedov was killed by the mob in Teheran (where he was envoy). Walter Campbell (the Scottish tutor of Charles the Beloved, Conmal’s chess partner) ends up in Iran (Index to PF). The name of one of the eleven generals in Izobretenie Val'sa is Grib.


On Antiterra Chekhov’s play “The Three Sisters” is known as Four Sisters (2.1, et passim). 3 + 4 = 7 (this formula is also cited by Merezhkovski in "The Secret of Three: Egypt and Babylon,” 1925). In his seven-line poem “Bol’shaya medveditsa” VN mentions sem’ devushek (seven girls) who wait on the shore for their husbands (the fishermen) and sem’ zvyozdochek (seven little stars) of the Great Bear.


At the beginning of his essay Zametki perevodchika (“A Translator’s Notes” 1957) VN mentions “the whole constellation, the entire Great Bear of rhymes” in each stanza of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin:


Работу над переводом ЕО на английский язык я начал в 1950 г., и теперь пора с ним расстаться. Сперва ещё казалось, что при помощи каких-то магических манипуляций мне в конце концов удастся передать не только всё содержание каждой строфы, но и всё созвездие, всю Большую Медведицу её рифм. Но даже если бы стихотворцу-алхимику удалось сохранить и череду рифм, и точный смысл текста (что математически невозможно на нищем рифмами английском языке), чудо было бы ни к чему, так как английское понятие о рифме не соответствует русскому.

According to VN, even if a poet-alchemist managed to preserve [in his rhymed translation of EO] both the rhyme sequence and the precise meaning of the original (which is mathematically impossible in English, a language poor in rhymes), the miracle would have been in vain, because the English and the Russian concepts of rhyme are different.


At the end of his poem Shade mentions old Dr. Sutton's last two windowpanes:


But it's not bedtime yet. The sun attains
Old Dr. Sutton's last two windowpanes.
The man must be--what? Eighty? Eighty-two?
Was twice my age the year I married you. (ll. 985-988)


In its unfinished form Shade’s poem has 999 lines. Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s poem needs only Line 1000 (identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that two lines should be added to Shade's almost finished poem. The poem's last line (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”) and Kinbote's entire Foreword, Commentary and Index are its coda. In his fragment Rim ("Rome," 1842) Gogol describes a carnival in Rome and mentions the Italian sonetto colla coda (sonnet with a coda), explaining in a footnote what a coda is.


At the end of his essay Zametki perevodchika II (“Translator’s Notes. Part Two,” 1957) VN mentions tysyacha i odno primechanie (a thousand and one notes):


Так скажут историк и словесник; но что может сказать бедный переводчик? «Симилар ту э уингед лили, балансинг энтерс Лалла Рух»? Всё потеряно, всё сорвано, все цветы и серёжки лежат в лужах — и я бы никогда не пустился в этот тусклый путь, если бы не был уверен, что внимательному чужеземцу всю солнечную сторону текста можно подробно объяснить в тысяче и одном примечании.

According to VN, he would have never attempted to translate EO into English, had he not been certain that to the attentive foreigner the entire sunny side of the text can be in detail explained in a thousand and one notes.


The characters of Pale Fire include Odon (a  world-famous actor and Zemblan patriot who helps the king to escape from Zembla) and his half-brother Nodo (a cardsharp and despicable traitor). Odon = Nodo = odno (neut. of odin, “one”). At the end of his Commentary Kinbote says that he may join forces with Odon (who directs a film in Paris) in a new motion picture:


God will help me, I trust, to rid myself of any desire to follow the example of the other two characters in this work. I shall continue to exist. I may assume other disguises, other forms, but I shall try to exist. I may turn up yet, on another campus, as an old, happy, healthy, heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art. I may join forces with Odon in a new motion picture: Escape from Zembla (ball in the palace, bomb in the palace square). I may pander to the simple tastes of theatrical critics and cook up a stage play, an old-fashioned melodrama with three principles: a lunatic who intends to kill an imaginary king, another lunatic who imagines himself to be that king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the line of fire, and perishes in the clash between the two figments. Oh, I may do many things! History permitting, I may sail back to my recovered kingdom, and with a great sob greet the gray coastline and the gleam of a roof in the rain. I may huddle and groan in a madhouse. But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out--somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking toward a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door--a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus. (note to Line 1000)


In his essay Pouchkine ou le vrai et le vraisemblable (1937) VN points out that, had Pushkin lived a couple of years longer, we would have had his photograph. In Chapter Two (XIV) of EO Pushkin says that we deem all people naughts and ourselves units and that the millions of two-legged creatures for us are orudie odno (only tools):


Но дружбы нет и той меж нами.
Все предрассудки истребя,

Мы почитаем всех нулями,
А единицами – себя.

Мы все глядим в Наполеоны;
Двуногих тварей миллионы
Для нас орудие одно;

Нам чувство дико и смешно.
Сноснее многих был Евгений;
Хоть он людей, конечно, знал
И вообще их презирал, —
Но (правил нет без исключений)
Иных он очень отличал
И вчуже чувство уважал.


But in our midst there’s even no such friendship:

Having destroyed all the prejudices,

We deem all people naughts

And ourselves units.

We all expect to be Napoleons;

the millions of two-legged creatures

for us are only tools;

feeling to us is weird and ludicrous.

More tolerant than many was Eugene,

though he, of course, knew men

and on the whole despised them;

but no rules are without exceptions:

some people he distinguished greatly

and, though estranged from it, respected feeling.


According to Pushkin, we all expect to be Napoleons. In his mock epic in octaves Domik v Kolomne (“A Small Cottage in Kolomna,” 1830) Pushkin says that it is a thrill to lead one’s verses under numbers and compares each line to a soldier and the poet, to Tamerlane or even Napoleon himself:


Как весело стихи свои вести
Под цифрами, в порядке, строй за строем,
Не позволять им в сторону брести,
Как войску, в пух рассыпанному боем!
Тут каждый слог замечен и в чести,
Тут каждый стих глядит себе героем,
А стихотворец... с кем же равен он?
Он Тамерлан иль сам Наполеон. (V)


In his poem “The Nature of Electricity” (quoted in full by Kinbote in his Commentary) Shade mentions a streetlamp number nine-hundred-ninety-nine and the torments of a Tamerlane:


The light never came back but it gleams again in a short poem "The Nature of Electricity," which John Shade had sent to the New York magazine The Beau and the Butterfly, some time in 1958, but which appeared only after his death:


The dead, the gentle dead--who knows?--
In tungsten filaments abide,
And on my bedside table glows
Another man's departed bride.


And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
Town with innumerable lights,
And Shelley's incandescent soul
Lures the pale moths of starless nights.


Streetlamps are numbered, and maybe
Number nine-hundred-ninety-nine
(So brightly beaming through a tree
So green) is an old friend of mine.


And when above the livid plain
Forked lightning plays, therein may dwell
The torments of a Tamerlane,
The roar of tyrants torn in hell.


Science tells us, by the way, that the Earth would not merely fall apart, but vanish like a ghost, if Electricity were suddenly removed from the world. (note to Line 347)


On Antiterra electricity was banned after the L disaster in the beau milieu of the 19th century (1.3). The Antiterran L disaster seems to correspond to the mock execution of Dostoevski and the Petrashevskians on Jan. 3, 1850 (NS), in our world. L is a Roman numeral that corresponds to the Arabian 50. On the other hand, as the disaster name, L seems to hint at Lermontov (the author of the prophetical "Prediction," 1830) and at Lenin (who came to power in Russia in October of 1917). In his Commentary Kinbote mockingly calls Gradus "Vinogradus" and "Leningradus." Vinograd ("Grape," 1824) is a poem by Pushkin.


In a letter of Oct. 31, 1838 (Dostoevski’s seventeenth birthday), to his brother Dostoevski twice uses the word gradus (degree):


Друг мой! Ты философствуешь как поэт. И как не ровно выдерживает душа градус вдохновенья, так не ровна, не верна и твоя философия. Чтоб больше знать, надо меньше чувствовать, и обратно, правило опрометчивое, бред сердца.

My friend, you philosophize like a poet. And just because the soul cannot be forever in a state of exaltation, your philosophy is not true and not just. To know more one must feel less, and vice versa. Your judgment is featherheaded – it is a delirium of the heart.


Заметь, что поэт в порыве вдохновенья разгадывает Бога, следовательно, исполняет назначенье философии. Следовательно, поэтический восторг есть восторг философии... Следовательно, философия есть та же поэзия, только высший градус её!..

Remark that the poet, in the moment of inspiration, comprehends God and consequently does the philosopher's work. Consequently poetic inspiration is nothing less than poetical inspiration. Consequently philosophy is nothing but poetry, a higher degree of poetry!


Shade, Kinbote and Gradus have one and the same birthday: July 5 (Shade was born in 1898, Kinbote and Gradus were born seventeen years later, in 1915). Pushkin's poem Iz Pindemonti ("From Pindemonte," 1836) is dated in the draft July 5.


In the same letter to his brother Dostoevski quotes the last two lines of Pushkin’s sonnet Poetu (“To a Poet,” 1830):


Байрон был эгоист: его мысль о славе — была ничтожна, суетна... Но одно помышленье о том, что некогда вслед за твоим былым восторгом вырвется из праха душа чистая, возвышенно-прекрасная, мысль, что вдохновенье как таинство небесное освятит страницы, над которыми плакал ты и будет плакать потомство, не думаю, чтобы эта мысль не закрадывалась в душу поэта и в самые минуты творчества. Пустой же крик толпы ничтожен. Ах! я вспомнил 2 стиха Пушкина, когда он описывает толпу и поэта:


И плюет (толпа) на алтарь, где твой огонь горит,
И в детской резвости колеблет твой треножник!..


And (the crowd) spit on the altar, where your fire burns
And shake your tripod in childish playfulness.


In the same letter to his brother Dostoevski (who just failed his algebra examination) says that it is sad to live without nadezhda (hope), compares himself to the Prisoner of Chillon (the hero of Byron’s poem translated into Russian by Zhukovski) and complains that the paradise bird of poetry would never visit him:


Брат, грустно жить без надежды... Смотрю вперёд, и будущее меня ужасает... Я ношусь в какой-то холодной, полярной атмосфере, куда не заползал луч солнечный... Я давно не испытывал взрывов вдохновенья... зато часто бываю и в таком состоянье, как, помнишь, Шильонский узник после смерти братьев в темнице... Не залетит ко мне райская птичка поэзии, не согреет охладелой души...


In his poem Net, ya ne Bayron, ya drugoy… (“No, I’m not Byron, I’m another…” 1832) Lermontov mentions nadezhd razbitykh gruz (a load of broken hopes) that lies in his soul, as in the ocean:


Нет, я не Байрон, я другой,
Ещё неведомый избранник,
Как он, гонимый миром странник,
Но только с русскою душой.

Я раньше начал, кончу ране,
Мой ум немного совершит;
В душе моей, как в океане,
Надежд разбитых груз лежит.
Кто может, океан угрюмый,
Твои изведать тайны? Кто
Толпе мои расскажет думы?
Я — или Бог — или никто!


No, I'm not Byron, I’m another
yet unknown chosen man,
like him, a persecuted wanderer,
but only with a Russian soul.
I started sooner, I will end sooner,
my mind won’t achieve much;
in my soul, as in the ocean,
lies a load of broken hopes.
Who can, gloomy ocean,

find out your secrets? Who
will tell to the crowd my thoughts?
Myself – or God – or none at all!


Бог + никто + голь = Боткин + Гоголь

Бог + никто + слово/волос + Банко = Боткин + голос/логос + Набоков

Бог + никто + ладонь + Набоков = Боткин + огонь + бок + Алданов


Бог - God

никто - nobody (the last word in Lermontov's poem)

голь - the poor

Боткин - Botkin

Гоголь - Gogol

слово - word

волос - a hair

Банко - Banquo (a character in Shakespeare's Macbeth)

голос - voice

логос - Logos

Набоков - Nabokov

ладонь - palm (of a hand)

огонь - fire

бок - side

Алданов - Aldanov (penname of Mark Landau, 1886-1957), VN's friend and fellow writer; the main character in Aldanov’s novel Mogila voina (“A Soldier’s Grave,” 1938) is Byron; Aldanov’s novel has the epigraph from Byron’s poem On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year (1824):


Seek out -- less often sought than found
A soldier's grave, for thee the best,
Then look around and choose thy ground,
And take thy rest.


In the first stanza of his last poem Byron says that he cannot be beloved:


'Tis time this heart should be unmoved,
Since others it has ceased to move:
Yet though I cannot be beloved,
Still let me love!


In the first stanza of his poem Vykhozhu odin ya na dorogu... ("Alone I set out on the road..." 1841) Lermontov says: "the night is still, the desert harks to God, and the star with star converses." Kremnistyi put' (the flinty path) mentioned by Lermontov in the poem's second line brings to mind mlechnyi put' (the Milky Way) and kreml' (the Kremlin).


In the last stanza of his poem Son ("A Dream," 1841) Lermontov mentions znakomyi trup (a familiar corpse). Like Lermontov's poem, VN's novel Ada is a triple dream (a dream within a dream within a dream). The characters in VN's play Izobretenie Val'sa include Son (Trance in "The Waltz Invention"), the reporter who runs errands for Waltz and whom a woman can play. At Antonina Pavlovna's birthday party in "The Event" the famous writer calls the reporter from "The Sun" (invited by Troshcheykin) solntse moyo ("my sun"). As he marvels his almost finished portrait of the jeweler's son, Troshcheykin says that iskusstvo dvizhetsya vsegda protiv solntsa (art moves always in the counter-sun direction). In 1918 VN translated into Russian (as Solntse bessonnykh) Byron's poem Sun of the Sleepless. By "sun of the sleepless" Byron means the moon. In Canto Four of Pale Fire Shade asks Will (Shakespeare) to help him find some "moondrop title" for his poem and borrows it from Timon of Athens:

The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun. (Act IV, scene 3)